The first time I got Nancy Pelosi on the phone, 15 years ago, she struck me as one driven sister. I had only been in Washington for a few months, and had called her for a story I was working on about a House colleague of hers. Even the most junior New York Times reporters tend to get their calls returned, but Pelosi's press person phoned me back to say I shouldn't expect to hear from the congresswoman that day because she was out of pocket, attending to her mother's funeral. Mortified — I had no idea her mother had died — I apologized and put the phone down, only to be surprised shortly thereafter by a call from Pelosi, who was working her way through her call list all the same. Of course I had no idea how far the inability to take a day off would take her, but one criticism you never hear about the Speaker of the House of Representatives is this year's most popular put-down; no one would dream of telling Nancy Pelosi to cowgirl up.
It's little wonder her approval rating is melting faster than the wicked witch she's been portrayed as; yours would be, too, if you were starring in coast-to-coast ads as everything from a reckless driver to a monster. (This one, "The Attack of the 50-Foot Pelosi,'' shows her being electrocuted. And almost universally, she's cast as a woman with historically bad hair. Here are a few of the tamer anti-Pelosi messages dominating this campaign season — oh, but those are just the Democrats.) Some Democratic House staffers are irritated on her behalf, peeved that the president she helped get elected — just ask Hillary Clinton — has uttered not a word in her defense. Yet though politicians are a pretty thin-skinned bunch, Pelosi has a reputation among her peers as someone who is not so much impervious to attacks as downright invigorated by them. Which sounded like hooey, I must say, until I asked her how that could be.
"You have to know what you've come here to do,'' she says in an interview in her office. "You didn't come here to be in a popularity contest, you came here to get a job done. And if you're going to do that, you're going to be throwing some punches and you'd better be ready to take some. You're in the arena, so they have to discredit you. If I were not effective they wouldn't care about me." Wait, so she takes the rough treatment as a compliment? Not exactly: "I take it as a sign of our effectiveness, A. And B, it helps me raise money ... OK?"
It's that slightly bloodless quality — oh, and in politics that is a compliment — that has given her the flexibility to compromise with the same Blue Dog Democrats who are running against her now. It's also what made Pelosi, who doesn't curse or raise her voice, and is one of the best-loved bosses on the Hill, the most powerful woman in American politics. As practical behind closed doors as she is partisan in public, she'll be mentioned in the same breath as Sam Rayburn and "Uncle Joe" Cannon, who was as eager to block reform as she is to ram it through.
A canny strategist and prolific fundraiser, she helped build her own House majority, recruiting and financing the moderate candidates who have complicated her job as Speaker. Yet the boys in town underestimated her right up to the moment she pushed through the most sweeping legislative agenda since the Civil Rights era, in a horrible economy and while we were fighting two wars: She "is no Newt Gingrich; she really isn't intellectually interesting,'' tsked the Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess when Pelosi became Speaker. "We have to see if she is really ready for prime time." Republican critiques frequently referenced her smooth forehead, Armani suits and sexuality, as when Stephen Moore told his fellow fiscal conservatives at an Austin convention of "Americans for Prosperity" that if they were ever feeling depressed, "just remember you're not Mr. Pelosi." Or when Mike Huckabee joked that "the only thing worse than a torrid affair with sweet, sweet Nancy would be a torrid affair with Helen Thomas. If those were my only options, I'd probably be for same-sex marriage!"
'I don't mind the fray'
Baltimore Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro had his seventh child and only daughter working the front desk in their home by the time she was 10, but her toughness, her family has said, came from her meticulous, Italian-born knockout of a mom, Annunciata "Big Nancy" D'Alesandro. "You know what?'' Pelosi says in our interview, "I am'' — and here she points her hand straight out in front of her — "I have my eye on the prize in terms of, we have a goal, we're going to do this for the middle class, this is what's at stake. ... All my focus is the 1 in 5 children we're going to lift out of poverty into the middle class. ... And that's what we spend our time on, not on, 'Oh my gosh, did somebody say that about me?'
"I'm telling you, you step into that arena — and I've told this to women candidates over and over again — 'Are you ready? Because you're talking about power now. You talk about power, especially when you challenge the special interests, they'll come after you in a way that your friends and neighbors won't even recognize you.' ... "I kind of enjoy it,'' she adds, as sunnily as if her team were up 20 points going into next week's midterms. "I love campaigns; I don't mind the fray." Yet the skills that have made her a Speaker they'll name buildings after — attention to detail, and intimate knowledge of her members' needs and limits — do not necessarily help her sell her accomplishments on the road.
The anger and the apathy
At an American Legion convention in Milwaukee right before Labor Day, for instance, Pelosi, who has called the Iraq war "a grotesque mistake that ... has not made us safer," gamely shows up to pitch what she and the Democratic-controlled Congress have done for veterans. (Short answer: A lot, including $13 billion in disability compensation and an expanded new G.I. bill that extends educational benefits to the offspring of our war dead.) But she is not a particularly inspiring public speaker, and the most positive thing you can say about the reception she receives is that no one throws anything. (Or responds when she asks if there were any Californians in the house. Or applauds the mention of her four brothers and two nephews who served, or of the Army major who works in her office, placing other "wounded warriors" in jobs in other Congressional offices, both R and D.)
There were a few anti-Pelosi protesters the day before, the flack who escorts me into the convention tells me, with signs that said, "Fire Pelosi." "Pretty mild under the circumstances,'' he remarks, most unflackily. "They're polite here.'' Before she's even opened her mouth to address the crowd, some people walk out, and afterward, I have a hard time finding anyone who actually listened to what she had to say.
"I got up and gave blood'' while she was talking, says Harold Bergstrom, of Crosslake, Minnesota. Not even curious? "I disagree with her 100 percent, so I thought I'd better serve my country than make a fool of myself'' muttering to himself inside the hall. If Pelosi feels the chill, however, it doesn't slow her down any, and when I walk past her on her commercial flight to California later, she is sitting alone in coach, using the last seconds before takeoff by working her BlackBerry as if Health Care Reform depended on it. The next day at San Francisco State, she makes the same pitch to a small group of young veterans — several of whom volunteer that they could never have gone back to school without the new G.I. Bill. One of them tells me about risking his life to help bring democracy to Iraq, where he was wounded on his second tour of duty.
Iraqis "are a lot like us,'' says Sgt. Gary Allen, 38, a marketing major who grew up in Fort Greene, in Brooklyn and is the first in his family to attend college. "They smoke and joke and do all the things we do.'' In 2005, he watched Iraqis who had risked death threats to vote for the first time "coming out in tears; they knew the risk, and yet they stood" in line for hours for the privilege. So, is he going to exercise his right to be heard in November? Probably not, he says, a little sheepishly. "I haven't really been paying attention, and I don't want to make an uninformed choice.''
'There are forces at work'
Both the anger in Milwaukee and the apathy in San Francisco are Pelosi's enemies, but what I wonder is how she sees the public's disappointment in her party. Given that she's turned so much of what President Obama promised voters he would do if elected into the law of the land, why, in her view, are Americans who got exactly what they voted for so unhappy about it?
Nothing mysterious about it, she says: "There are forces at work, special interests, corporate interests, who aren't happy about our holding insurance companies accountable for fair coverage for the American people for their health. There are people who aren't happy about our Wall Street reform that is the biggest regulation reform in decades and the biggest consumer protection in history. So you have all those forces at work, pouring millions and millions of dollars into the media and now into the campaigns to mischaracterize everything that we did — so that's that.'' Now, she says, it's up to her members to sell it anyway.
And how does she propose they do that? Though Obama seems to have switched back to the caffeinated lately, what does she make of all the complaints about his cerebral "coolness," caution, and remove? Oh, he's passionate about issues, she insists, but "dispassionate about how we address them, how we manage it, how we get the job done, because that's what you have to be. ... There's 9 ½ percent unemployment in our country and we were in a very deep ditch. If we hadn't taken the actions that we did with the Recovery Act, well, that alone created or saved 3.6 million jobs. But economists tell us that that plus other actions if we hadn't taken them we'd have 8 ½ million more people unemployed, and we'd have a 14 ½ percent unemployment rate and we'd have a worse deficit, so we've got to advertise that.''
Pro-life feminism and the Catholic Church
When I ask how life has changed for the women who are getting that job done on the Hill, she describes the shift as "drastic" from the early days after her election 23 years ago, "when there were 24 women in the Congress, where people didn't even ask your opinion about anything, and in fact when I decided I was going to run for a leadership position, they said, 'Who said she could run?'"
And as for all the conservative women running for office this year, she concedes that yes, you can oppose Roe v. Wade and still be a feminist: "The pro-life position is a matter of belief — I don't see it as a political position. Certainly in our party we have some women who are not pro-choice — we all consider ourselves in favor of life — but in any case there are many other issues other than that on which you would make a judgment as to whether people are feminist or not.''
Her own pro-choice votes have caused her some agita as a Catholic who attends daily Mass, and whose staff has to locate a church for her wherever she travels. Given her clashes with the hierarchy of her church, has there ever been a moment when she thought of leaving it? This notion doesn't seem to compute.
"Leaving?" Leaving the Catholic Church, I clarify. "Nooo," she says, laughing as if the thought is too ridiculous to even contemplate. "No, no, no. I think some people might like me to do that. No, no, my faith is very important to me, and I view my connection to the church to be a very personal one — not passing through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church — but it is a source of strength and joy to me in my life."
And if things don't go as well as she hopes next week, has she thought about leaving Congress?
"Let me say first of all I refuse to answer any question predicated on our not winning'' on Nov. 2, "because we fully intend to win and that's the focus. You can't even entertain the thought of not winning. ... But having said that,'' says Pelosi, who is 70, "one of these days when I leave here, I have a life, I have a wonderful husband, five children, many grandchildren that are absolutely the joy of our lives. In fact, when I became a grandmother I really achieved my goal in life; first a mom and then a grandmother. My children won't let me raise their children — they're doing a very good job with it — so I guess I'll just have to stay in Congress.''
'If he doesn't like it, I don't want to have it'
Before I leave her office — and it's time she left, too, to meet the president — I want to shoot her just a few more quick questions, in kind of a lightning round, about the personal life that everybody but Nancy Pelosi seems to think she'll soon have lots more time to concentrate on. What's the movie she could watch 1,000 times? For the first time in our discussion, she has to pause to think: "Oh my gosh, I don't know, it just depends. But one that I just saw that I can't wait to see again is "Sherlock [Holmes]," which came out in 2009. The last book she read for pleasure? For a minute, I think she's starting down the Sarah Palin path: "Pleasure? Oh my gosh, well, every book I read I read for pleasure." But nah, she's got something for me: "One book I'm fixated on right now is "The Red Book" – this is the book about [Carl] Jung and his writings that they found later. ... It's an 'out-there' book."
Is it true that her hubby really shops for all her clothes? "It's — he encourages me," she said, which I take as a yes. "I'm not a big, I'm not, I don't like to shop. So he would say, 'I think you're getting a little shabby.' ... And if he doesn't like it — and this is not very liberated — if he doesn't like it, then I don't want to have it, and so it's important for him to come with, to lead the way in that."
Speaking of clothes, does she even own a pair of sweat pants? "Oh, tons. East Coast, West Coast, I live in them." Has she ever seen a reality TV show? She turns around and to consult her staff: "Have I? I don't know. Any time that I might have to watch TV, I'm watching sports. I watched practically everything on the Olympics, rerun overnight, everything in terms of the soccer, the World Cup, I'm following baseball right to the end here, especially the San Francisco Giants. ... It's just what I gravitate towards — ESPN.''
"Progressive" or "liberal"? And when people call her a "San Francisco liberal" what does she think? "I'm very proud of that,'' said Pelosi, who hosted the 1984 National Democratic Convention that inspired the phrase. "I'm a liberal, and I hope that I'm progressive as well.'' And whether or not they still call her Madam Speaker next year, it is hard to imagine her ever stepping out of the arena.